Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein


MARCH 2003

On the eve of a U.S. invasion of Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein and destroy his stockpile of prohibited weapons, we need to ask whether the Bush administration's plan to bring freedom to Iraq and other parts of the Middle East is indeed feasible. If not, is the drive to oust Saddam's regime and occupy Iraq indefinitely a "bridge too far?"

In his important address to the American Enterprise Institute on February 26, Mr. Bush stated his Middle East objectives in these terms: "A liberated Iraq can show the power of freedom to transform the vital region by bringing peace and progress into the lives of millions. America's interest in security and America's belief in liberty both lead in the same direction -- to a free and peaceful Iraq."

The president declared that "success in Iraq could also begin a new stage for Middle Eastern peace and set in motion progress toward a truly democratic Palestinian state." In effect, the president is tying liberation in Iraq to the creation of a democratic state of Palestine, one that he thinks will provide liberation for the Palestinian people.

George Bush's vision of a new era in Middle Eastern history is breathtaking.. As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote on March 2, "What you are about to see is the greatest shake of the dice that any president has voluntarily engaged in since Harry Truman dropped the bomb on Japan." Rebuilding a decent Iraqi state, he states, "would be the mother of all presidential gambles."

The question is no longer whether the president will signal soon the start of the invasion. That question was decided by his administration months ago and an attack on Iraq probably will commence in a week or two. The real uncertainties are these: how will the campaign be conducted if Turkey continues to stall on permitting U.S. forces to use its territory to open a northern front in Iraq, and how long the fighting will last if Saddam chooses to fight instead of accepting exile? The White House and Pentagon expected a short war until the Turkish parliament narrowly defeated a bill to permit the United States to use its territory for invasion. Without a northern front, how much longer and at what cost will it take for British and American ground forces to prevail? .

Another uncertainty is what the U.N. Security Council will decide regarding the use of force against Iraq. Washington needs nine votes and no vetoes. Despite the State Department's great diplomatic efforts to line up the votes of smaller non-permanent members, the final tally may fall short and either France or Russia may use its veto. The White House says the United States already has authority to use force under Resolution 1441, adopted unanimously by the Security Council in November, and will proceed if the U.N. body fails to adopt a new resolution now before it..

The risks of this war in Iraq have been well publicized, and congressional Democrats are beginning to orchestrate the dangers as the American public exhibits anxiety about the costs of war. Only recently has the Pentagon publicly admitted that U.S. troops will stay in Iraq for many years. This would be to assist a new democratic government to establish its rule and provide security within Iraq. The financial costs will be high and there is little evidence that other countries will share these costs, as they did in the Gulf War eleven years ago.

It would be a mistake, however, to underestimate the potential benefits that would accrue to the Middle East and the United States if the military operation is successful and Saddam Hussein is quickly ousted from power. But success requires a short war with minimal casualties, early establishment of a moderate government in Baghdad, and a revived Iraqi economy. Is this an unrealistic outcome for the war?

The president may be right in predicting that success in Iraqi will have a favorable ripple effect elsewhere in the Arab world. Countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt would be more stable in the 21st century if they are encouraged to start opening their societies to more discussion about government policies and permitting basic freedoms for their people. And Mr. Bush's expectation that peace in Iraq will spur the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians may also prove correct.

Still, these are large assumptions. Skeptics call them George Bush's illusions...

No one knows how long or how difficult it will be to invade Iraq, to unseat Saddam Hussein, and set up a new civilian government to administer the country. The Pentagon suggests that a military occupation will be required for at least two years before elections are held and an Iraqi government is organized. Following that, U.S. forces, perhaps one hundred thousand, will be needed to ensure Iraq's territorial integrity and to cope with the deep ethnic and religious tensions that will threaten its political stability....

Turkey's reluctance to participate in the war makes military operations more difficult for General Tommy Franks, the top U.S. commander in the region. Instead of invading northern Iraq with a large armored force to secure Iraq's oil fields before Saddam's troops can torch them, Gen. Franks will be obliged to send paratroopers to northern Iraq from bases in Kuwait, at greater risk to their success.

Regarding the president's expectation of bringing the peace to Palestine, many say this too is an illusion. They claim that Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon, has no intention of giving up Jewish settlements or agreeing to a Palestinian state. It would take real pressure from Washington, including reduction in economic aid, to influence Sharon's hard-line cabinet. So far, say the critics, Mr. Bush has shown no sign of a willingness to exert such pressure.

The decisions President Bush faces in dealing with Iraq are similar to those Lyndon Johnson encountered when he decided in 1965 to send large ground forces to South Vietnam. In both cases the United Nations was reluctant to authorize war. And in both cases the president had few allies. Only Australia and South Korea sent significant forces to help fight in Vietnam. In the Iraq case, only Britain and Australia are committing ground troops. In both cases many members of Congress expressed serious doubts about the costs and wisdom of launching these large-scale wars. .

One difference in 2003 is that this president is determined to prevail against Saddam Hussein's regime. Another difference is the careful planning done by military leaders to ensure the success of operations in Iraq. What is less certain is whether the White House has realistically calculated the costs and risks of the period after the military campaign concludes. These risks include increased terrorist attacks on our troops in the region and new attacks in European and American cities.

We will have answers to some of these questions in the next few weeks. But a judgment about the wisdom of undertaking this huge gamble, making Iraq a springboard for remaking the entire Middle East, must await further appraisal in five to ten years.

File last modified on Thursday, 12-AUG-2004 09:00 PM EST

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